New health guidelines for Schenectady County schools should reduce the number of students and staff ordered to quarantine after close contacts of a positive COVID-19 case are identified, according to county health officials.
The new guidelines, which help schools and health officials determine who risked exposure to a confirmed COVID-19 case among students and staff, now limit the instances in which an entire classroom would be classified as potential exposure, focusing instead on people with extended direct exposure from a short distance away.
Schenectady County health officials updated the guidelines in recent weeks, incorporating months of learning what was actually going on inside schools — both locally and around the world — as well as borrowing from the lessons of other counties that have shifted how they determine exposure risk in schools.
Claire Proffitt, a supervising public health nurse in Schenectady County, on Thursday said the new guidelines were developed based on the emerging knowledge across the state about the risks of COVID-19 exposure within school settings.
“We felt like it was time to re-evaluate what we were doing in light of knowledge we have gained and knowledge that’s been gained nationally and internationally,” she said.
She noted the new guidelines were partly an attempt at “trying to tailor it, so we are not quarantining whole classes when we don’t need to.”
Elizabeth Whalen, the Albany County health director, on Thursday said the county was working out new quarantine procedures for schools, suggesting they would limit quarantine orders among students and staff.
“We are looking at more tailored and targeted approaches to quarantine in the school environment,” Whalen said during an Albany County update.
Proffitt said Schenectady County health officials have confidence and assurances that students and staff in schools are adhering to mask and distancing requirements and that the experience of the school year has suggested exposure risks are small as long as an infected person isn’t coming into close contact with people without masks. While health officials working to determine exposure risk in the broader community may essentially assume many people are not wearing masks, Proffitt said, health officials now feel they can largely credit schools with compliance.
“Schools are an environment where you have a lot of control over participants,” she said.
Proffitt added that compliance with mask-wearing and distancing protocols among students has been strong — “Frankly, better than we are seeing in adult populations,” she said.
The new guidelines specify that in a classroom setting only people who spend 10 minutes or more within six feet of an infected individual or spend 45 minutes or more between six and 12 feet away from the infected individual must quarantine. The county health agency also provided a matrix of factors for determining risky exposure in schools or on busses, enabling a more cut-and-dry way of determining whether someone needs to quarantine due to exposure to an infected person. Proffitt said the matrix, which she called an algorithm, can help streamline the process of determining people with potential exposure risk.
Health officials and educators throughout the school year have said the transmission risk within schools have remained low and that most school-based cases have emerged outside of schools themselves. But many schools have faced complicated staffing challenges as staff have had to quarantine as a result of cases both inside and outside schools, leading many districts to transition entire classrooms, grades or even buildings into all-remote learning for a period of time. Sliding infection rates have eased those staffing challenges in recent weeks, and the updated exposure guidelines should in effect further minimize the number of staff quarantining.
“Most of the places we are seeing transmission in schools is where there are other connections” outside of school, Proffitt said. “Yes, there are probably occasional places where you can point to transmission in school, but the risk is demonstrably bigger in a setting where people are inside without masks or social distancing.”